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Posts Tagged ‘history

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.

References

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-25/stan-grant-captain-cook-indigenous-culture-statues-history/8843172

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-23/stan-grant:-damaging-myth-captain-cook-discovered-australia/8833536

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-18/america-tears-down-its-racist-history-we-ignore-ours-stan-grant/8821662

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Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am

who’s being stupid here?

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Conservative MP Christian Porter thinks Aboriginal people should stop being stupid and crazy

Interesting that the Federal Minister of Social Security, one Christian Porter, when asked about the move by more local councils to no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26, dismissed them all as nutty and stupid. Considering that the majority of Aboriginal Australians consider that day as a day of mourning for what they’ve lost, this is tantamount to calling those Aboriginal Australians nutty and stupid. But then, these people are in a minority in Australia, so presumably Porter feels safe in insulting them. I’m hopeful that there will be a backlash against this sort of inadvertent and lazy racism.

So the Darebin City Council, which adjoins the Yarra Council in Melbourne, has just announced that it too will boycott January 26 as a special day. To be consistent, the Feds will have to strip that council of its citizenship-bestowing function. And so on.

In this interesting article by James Purtill, written some six months ago, it’s pointed out that 1988, the bicentenary of the British land-grab, marked one of the biggest marches ever seen in Sidney. Since then, the issue has waxed and waned but has never gone away. These moves by local councils will bring the issue out in the open again, making it less easy to dismiss the many people who have reservations about this date as nut-jobs. The debate needs to be civil and respectful, but to me it’s a no-brainer. The date needs to change.

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2017 at 10:48 am

nationalism, memes and the ANZAC legend

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Canto: Okay, I get livid when I hear the unquestioning and unquestioned pap spoken about the Anzacs, year in year out, and when I hear primary teachers talking about their passion for Anzac Day, and teaching it to impressionable young children. Not sure how they will teach it, but when such remarks are followed by a middle-aged woman knitting poppy rosettes and saying ‘after all, if it wasn’t for them [the Anzacs] we would’t be here’, I’m filled with rage and despair about the distortions of history to suit some kind of nationalist pride and sentimentality.

Jacinta: Yes, that sort of thing leads to innocent, impressionable young children parroting the meme ‘they died so we could be free’.

Canto: Or in this case the even more absurd ‘they died so that we could exist’…

Jacinta: On the other hand, to be fair, many young people go off to Anzac Cove to commemorate their actual grand-fathers or great-great uncles who died there, and they’re captivated by their story of sacrifice.

Canto: Yes, and this memory should be kept, but for the right, evidence-based reasons. What did these young men sacrifice themselves for, really?

Jacinta: Well as we know, the reasons for the so-called Great War were mightily complex, but we can fairly quickly rule out that there was ever a threat to Australia’s freedom or existence. Of course it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if the Central Powers had won.

Canto: Well it’s hard to imagine them actually winning, but say this led to an invasion of Britain. Impossible to imagine this lasting for long, what with the growing involvement of the US. Of course the US wasn’t then the power it later became, but there’s little chance it would’ve fallen to the Central Powers, and it was growing stronger all the time, and as the natural ally of its fellow English-speaking nation, it would’ve made life tough for Britain’s occupiers, until some solution or treaty came about. Whatever happened, Australia would surely not have been in the frame.

Jacinta: Britain’s empire might’ve been weakened more quickly than it eventually was due to the anti-colonisation movement of the twentieth century. And of course another consequence of the Central Powers’ victory, however partial, might’ve been the failure or non-existence of Nazism…

Canto: Yes, though with the popularity of eugenics in the early twentieth century, master-race ideology, so endemic in Japan, would still have killed off masses of people.

Jacinta: In any case your point still holds true. Those young men sacrificed themselves for the British Empire, in its battle against a wannabe Germanic Empire, in a war largely confined to Europe.

Canto: But really in order to understand the mind-set of the young men who went to war in those days, you have to look more to social history. There was a naive enthusiasm for the adventure of war in those days, with western nations being generally much more patriarchal, with all the negative qualities entailed in that woeful term.

Jacinta: True, and that War That Didn’t End All Wars should, I agree, be best remembered as marking the beginning of the end of that war-delighting patriarchy that, in that instance, saw the needless death of millions, soldiers who went happily adventuring without fully realising that the massive industrialisation of the previous decades would make mincemeat out of so many of them. I’ve just been reading and watching videos of that war so as not to make an idiot of myself, and what I’ve found is a bunch of nations or soi-disant empires battling to maintain or regain or establish their machismo credentials in the year 1914. With no side willing to give quarter, and no independent mechanisms of negotiation, it all quickly degenerated into an abysmal conflict that no particular party could be blamed for causing or not preventing.

Canto: And some six million men were just waiting to get stuck in, an unprecedented situation. And what happened next was also unprecedented, a level of carnage never seen before in human history. The Battle of the Frontiers, as it was called, saw well over half a million casualties, within a month of the outbreak.

Jacinta: And so it went, carnage upon carnage, with the Gallipoli campaign – unbearable heat, flies, sickness and failure – being just one disaster among many. Of course it infamously settled into a war of attrition for some time, and how jolly it must’ve been for the allies to hear that they would inevitably be the victors, since the Central Powers would run out of cannon fodder first. It was all in the maths. War is fucked, and that particular war is massively illustrative of that fact. So stop, all teachers who want to tell the story of the heroic Anzacs to our impressionable children. I’m not saying they weren’t brave and heroic. I’m not saying they didn’t do their best under the most horrendous conditions. I’m certainly not saying their experience in fighting for the mother country was without value. They lived their time, within the confines and ideology of their time, as we all do. They played their part fully, in terms of what was expected of them in that time. They did their best. And it’s probably fair to say their commanders, and those above them, the major war strategists, also did their best, which no doubt in some cases was better than others. Even so, with all that, we have to be honest and clear-sighted and say they didn’t die, or have their lives forever damaged, so that we could be free. That’s sheer nonsense. They died so that a British Empire could maintain its ascendency, for a time, over a German one.

Canto: Or in the case of the French and the Russians, who suffered humungous casualties, they died due to the treaty entanglements of the time, and their overlords’ obvious concerns about the rise of Germany.

Jacinta: So all this pathos about the Anzacs really needs to be tweaked, just a wee bit. I don’t want to say they died in vain, but the fact is, they were there, at Gallipoli, in those rotten stinking conditions, in harm’s way, because of decisions made above their heads. That wasn’t their fault, and I’m reluctant, too, to blame the commanders, who also lived true to their times. Perhaps we should just be commemorating the fact that we no longer live in those macho, authoritarian times, and that we need to always find a better way forward than warfare.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2017 at 10:56 pm

local councils, Australia Day and federal bullying

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It’s all ours boys, from sea to flamin sea. Forget those damn Yanks, our Empire’s just beginning!

Recently a local council, the Yarra City Council, which covers a large portion of the eastern and north-eastern inner suburbs of Melbourne, opted to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, January 26, because of local sensibilities. It has posted the details of its decision, and the reasons for it, online. I find those reasons unexceptionable, but then I’m not a nationalist, I prefer to take an internationalist, humanist view on such issues. So I’ve never celebrated Australia Day, any more than I would celebrate the national day of any other country I happened to land up in, though I relish local customs, cuisines etc.

I have of course noticed, having lived in this country for over fifty years, that Australia Day has become controversial in recent years, for good reason. I happen to be reasonably knowedgable about the date, having read a bit of Australian history and having, over many years, taught the history of that date – Cook’s mapping of Australia’s east coast, the reasons for sending out the first fleet, the arrival in Port Jackson, the planting of the flag, and Britain’s obviously questionable claim to sovereignty – to NESB students in a number of community centres – the very places, sometimes, where citizenship ceremonies were carried out.

It seems clear to me that this date for celebrating Australian nationhood, which really only started to become controversial in the eighties, will eventually be changed. Until it is, controversy will grow. The Yarra Council decision is another move in that controversy, and it won’t be the last. It would be great if this change happened sooner rather than later, to nip the acrimony in the bud, but I doubt that will happen. The Federal Government has used what powers it has to prevent Yarra Council from holding citizenship ceremonies, arguing that the council has politicised the day. However, the controversy that has grown up over the date has always been a political one. Yarra Council’s decision was political, just as was the response of the Feds. On January 26 1788 a Union Jack was raised at Sydney Harbour, and all the land extending to the north, the south, and the west – some 7,692,000 square kilometres, though its extent was completely unknown at the time – was claimed as the possession of Britain, in spite of its clearly being already inhabited. If that wasn’t a political decision, what was it?

The Assistant Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has spoken for the Feds on this matter. Their argument is that citizenship itself has been politicised by Yarra Council’s decision:

“The code is there to make sure that councils don’t do these sorts of things. We don’t want citizenship ceremonies being used as a political argument for anybody’s political advancement one way or the other.

“It’s our role to uphold the code. We warned them not to do this or we would have to cancel their ability to do it, and I regret that they’ve done it.”

The code being referred to here is the Citizenship Ceremonies Code. The Yarra City Mayor, Amanda Stone, believes the council’s decision isn’t in breach of it. This may or may not be so, but this isn’t really the point. The chosen date for celebrating Australia day commemorates a highly political event, which can never be wished away. Marking this day as the most appropriate day for immigrants to become Australians valorises the date, and the event – essentially a land-grab – even more. So it seems odd, to me, that a decision not to promote this land-grab as representative of the much-touted Australian ‘fair go’, should be worthy of criticism, let alone condemnation and punishment.

Generally the Federal polllies’ response to all this has been confused and disappointing. Our PM has said this, according to the ABC:

“An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity”

Turnbull knows well enough, though, that the council’s decision isn’t an attack on the concept of Australia Day. It’s a recognition that the date is unacceptable to many people – precisely because that date itself repudiates the values of freedom and fair play, in a very obvious way. Turnbull isn’t stupid, he’s just doing what he’s done so many times of late, making politically expedient noises to maintain the support of his mostly more conservative colleagues.

The Labor leader Bill Shorten’s half-and-half response is also typically political. Here’s how the ABC reports it:

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was also critical of the move.

“Reconciliation is more about changing hearts and minds than it is about moving public holidays,” Mr Shorten said.

“But, of course, if we look at national days important in the history of this country, there is March 1 1901, when the Australian parliament, the Australian nation came into being.”

In other words, ‘reconciliation is about nothing so trivial as the dates of public holidays but, hey, maybe March 1 should be our Australia Day’. Caspar Milquetoast would have been proud of that one.

We’re just at the beginning of this tussle, and the end, I think, is inevitable. Yarra Council isn’t the first to make this decision. The Fremantle Council did the same in December last year, but was bullied into backing down by the Feds. The Yarra Council seems more firm in its resolve, and obviously other councils will follow in due course. The Turnbull government will fall at the next election, and this will encourage more council action and more public debate on the issue. It’ll be interesting to observe how long it all takes…

Written by stewart henderson

August 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part three, Apollo

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In 2009, a poll held by the United Kingdom’s Engineering & Technology magazine found that 25% of those surveyed did not believe that men landed on the Moon. Another poll gives that 25% of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed were unsure that the landings happened. There are subcultures worldwide which advocate the belief that the Moon landings were faked. By 1977 the Hare Krishna magazine Back to Godhead called the landings a hoax, claiming that, since the Sun is 93,000,000 miles away, and “according to Hindu mythology the Moon is 800,000 miles farther away than that”, the Moon would be nearly 94,000,000 miles away; to travel that span in 91 hours would require a speed of more than a million miles per hour, “a patently impossible feat even by the scientists’ calculations.”

From ‘Moon landing conspiracy theories’ , Wikipedia

Time magazine cover, December 1968

Haha just for the record the Sun is nearly 400 times further from us than the Moon, but who’s counting? So now to the Apollo moon missions, and because I don’t want this exploration to extend to a fourth part, I’ll be necessarily but reluctantly brief. They began in 1961 and ended in 1975, and they included manned and unmanned space flights (none of them were womanned).

But… just one more general point. While we may treat it as inevitable that many people prefer to believe in hoaxes and gazillion-dollar deceptions, rather than accept facts that are as soundly evidence-based as their own odd existences, it seems to me a horrible offence in this case (as in many others), both to human ingenuity and to the enormous cost in terms, not only of labour spent but of lives lost. So we need to fight this offensive behaviour, and point people to the evidence, and not let them get away with their ignorance.

The Apollo program was conceived in 1960 during Eisenhower’s Presidency, well before Kennedy’s famous mission statement. It was given impetus by Soviet successes in space. It involved the largest commitment of financial and other resources in peacetime history. The first years of research, development and testing involved a number of launch vehicles, command modules and lunar modules, as well as four possible ‘mission modes’. The first of these modes was ‘direct ascent’, in which the spacecraft would be launched and operated as a single unit. Finally, after much analysis, debate and lobbying, the mode known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was adopted. The early phases of the program were dogged by technical problems, developmental delays, personal clashes and political issues, including the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy’s principal science advisor, Jerome Weisner, was solidly opposed to manned missions.

I can’t give a simple one-by-one account of the missions, as the early unmanned missions weren’t simply named Apollo 1, 2 etc. They were associated strongly with the Saturn launch vehicles, and the Apollo numbering system we now recognise was only established in April 1967. The Apollo 4 mission, for example, is also known as AS-501, and was the first unmanned test flight of the Saturn 5 launcher (later used for the Apollo 11 launch). Three Apollo/Saturn unmanned missions took place in 1966 using the Saturn 1B launch vehicle.

The manned missions had the most tragic of beginnings, as is well known. On January 27 1967 the three designated astronauts for the AS-204 spaceflight, which they themselves had renamed Apollo 1 to commemorate the first manned flight of the program, were asphyxiated when a fire broke out during a rehearsal test. No further attempt at a manned mission was made until October of 1968. In fact, the whole program was grounded after the accident for ‘review and redesign’ with an overall tightening of hazardous procedures. In early 1968, the Lunar Module was given its first unmanned flight (Apollo 5). The flight was delayed a number of times due to problems and inexperience in constructing such a module. The test run wasn’t entirely successful, but successful enough to clear the module for future manned flights. The following, final unmanned mission, Apollo 6, suffered numerous failures, but went largely unnoticed due to the assassination of Martin Luther King on the day of the launch. However, its problems helped NASA to apply fixes which improved the safety of all subsequent missions.

And so we get to the first successful manned mission, Apollo 7. Its aim was to test the Apollo CSM (Command & Service Module) in low Earth orbit, and it put American astronauts in space for the first time in almost two years. It was also the first of the three-man missions and the first to be broadcasted from within the spaceship. Things went very well in technical terms, a relief to the crew, who were only given this opportunity due to the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. There were some minor tensions between the astronauts and ground staff, due to illness and some of the onboard conditions. They spent 11 days in orbit and space food, though on the improve, was far from ideal.

Apollo 8, launched only two months later in December, was a real breakthrough, a truly bold venture, as described in Earthrise, an excellent documentary of the mission made in 2005 (the astronauts were the first to witness Earthrise from the Moon). The aim, clearly, was to create a high-profile event designed to capture the world’s attention, and to eclipse the Soviets. As the documentary points out, the Soviets had stolen the limelight in the space race – ‘the first satellite, the first man in orbit, the first long duration flight, the first dual capsule flights, the first woman in space, the first space walk’. Not to mention the first landing of a human-built craft on the Moon itself.

One of the world’s most famous photos, Earthrise, taken by astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968

The original aim of the mission was to test the complete spacecraft, including the lunar module, in Earth orbit, but when the lunar module was declared unready, a radical change of plan was devised, involving an orbit of the Moon without the lunar module. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times at close quarters (110 kms above the surface) over a period of 20 hours. During the orbit they made a Christmas Eve telecast, the most watched program ever, up to that time. Do yourself a favour and watch the doco. The commentary of the astronaut’s wives are memorable, and put the moon hoaxers’ offensiveness in sharp relief.
By comparison to Apollo 8 the Apollo 9 mission (March ’69) was a modest affair, if that’s not too insulting. This time the complete spacecraft for a Moon landing was tested in low Earth orbit, and everything went off well, though space walking proved problematic, as it often had before for both American and Soviet astronauts, due to space sickness and other problems. With Apollo 10 (May ’69) the mission returned to the Moon in a full dress rehearsal of the Apollo 11 landing. The mission created some interesting records, including the fastest speed ever reached by a manned vehicle (39,900 kms/hour during the return flight from the Moon) and the greatest distance from home ever travelled by humans (due to the Moon’s elliptical orbit, and the fact that the USA was on the ‘far side of the Earth’ when the astronauts were on the far side of the Moon).

I’ll pass by the celebrated Apollo 11 mission, which I can hardly add anything to, and turn to the missions I know less – that’s to say almost nothing – about.

Apollo 12, launched in November 1969, was a highly successful mission, in spite of some hairy moments due to lightning strikes at launch. It was, inter alia, a successful exercise in precision targeting, as it landed a brief walk away from the Surveyor 3 probe, sent to the Moon two and a half years earlier. Parts of the probe were taken back to Earth.

The Apollo 13 mission has, for better or worse, come to be the second most famous of all the Apollo missions. It was the only aborted mission of those intended to land on the Moon. An oxygen tank exploded just over two days after launch in April 1970, and just before entry into the Moon’s gravitational sphere. This directly affected the Service Module, and it was decided to abort the landing. There were some well-documented hairy moments and heroics, but the crew managed to return safely. Mea culpa, I’ve not yet seen the movie!

Apollo 14, launched at the end of January 1971, also had its glitches but landed successfully. The astronauts collected quite a horde of moon rocks and did the longest moonwalk ever recorded. Alan Shepard, the mission commander, added his Moon visit to the accolade of being the first American in space ten years earlier. At 47, he’s the oldest man to have stepped on the Moon. The Apollo 15 mission was the first of the three ‘J missions’, involving a longer stay on the Moon. With each mission there were improvements in instrumentation and capability. The most well-known of these was the Lunar Roving Vehicle, first used on Apollo 15, but that mission also deployed a gamma-ray spectrometer, a mass spectrometer and a laser altimeter to study the Moon’s surface in detail from the command module. Apollo 16 was another successful mission, in which the geology of the Moon’s surface was the major focus. Almost 100kgs of rock were collected, and it was the first mission to visit the ‘lunar highlands’. The final mission, Apollo 17, was also the longest Moon stay, longest moonwalks in total, largest samples, and longest lunar orbit. And so the adventure ended, with high hopes for the future.

I’ve given an incredibly skimpy account, and I’ve mentioned very few names, but there’s a ton of material out there, particularly on the NASA site of course, and documentaries aplenty, many of them a powerful and stirring reminder of those heady days. Some 400,000 technicians, engineers, administrators and other service personnel worked on the Apollo missions, many of them working long hours, experiencing many frustrations, anxieties, and of course thrills. I have to say, as an internationalist by conviction, I’m happy to see that space exploration has become more of a collaborative affair in recent decades, and may that collaboration continue, defying the insularity and mindless nationalism we’ve been experiencing recently.

a beautiful image of the International Space Station, my favourite symbol of global cooperation

Finally, to the moon hoaxers and ‘skeptics’. What I noticed on researching this – I mean it really was obvious – was that in the comments to the various docos I watched on youtube, they had nothing to say about the science and seemed totally lacking in curiosity. It was all just parroted, and ‘arrogant’ denialism. The science buffs, on the other hand, were full of dizzy geekspeak on technical fixes, data analysis and potential for other missions, e.g. to Mars. In any case I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this little trip into the Apollo missions and the space race, in which I’ve learned a lot more than I’ve presented here.

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2017 at 4:42 pm

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part one

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my copy - a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, come moi

my copy – a stimulating and fun read, great fodder for closed-minded types, comme moi

I’ve just had my first ever conversation with someone who at least appears to be sceptical of the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 – and, I can only suppose, the five subsequent successful moon landings. Altogether, twelve men walked on the moon between 20 July 1969 and December 10 1972, when the crew members of Apollo 17 left the moon’s surface. Or so the story goes.

This conversation began when I said that perhaps the most exciting world event I’ve experienced was that first moon landing, watching Neil Armstrong possibly muffing the lines about one small step for a man, and marvelling that it could be televised. I was asked how I knew that it really happened. How could I be so sure?

Of course I had no immediate answer. Like any normal person, I have no immediate, or easy, answer to a billion questions that might be put to me. We take most things on trust, otherwise it would be a very very painstaking existence. I didn’t mention that, only a few months before, I’d read Phil Plait’s excellent book Bad Astronomy, subtitled Misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing ‘hoax’. Plait is a professional astronomer who maintains the Bad Astronomy blog and he’s much better equipped to handle issues astronomical than I am, but I suppose I could’ve made a fair fist of countering this person’s doubts if I hadn’t been so flabbergasted. As I said, I’d never actually met someone who doubted these events before. In any case I don’t think the person was in any mood to listen to me.

Only one reason for these doubts was offered. How could the lunar module have taken off from the moon’s surface? Of course I couldn’t answer, never having been an aeronautical engineer employed by NASA, or even a lay person nerdy enough to be up on such matters, but I did say that the moon’s minimal gravity would presumably make a take-off less problematic than, say, a rocket launch from Mother Earth, and this was readily agreed to. I should also add that the difficulties, whatever they might be, of relaunching the relatively lightweight lunar modules – don’t forget there were six of them – didn’t feature in Plait’s list of problems identified by moon landing skeptics which lead them to believe that the whole Apollo adventure was a grand hoax.

So, no further evidence was proffered in support of the hoax thesis. And let’s be quite clear, the claim, or suggestion, that the six moon landings didn’t occur, must of necessity be a suggestion that there was a grand hoax, a conspiracy to defraud the general public, one involving tens of thousands of individuals, all of whom have apparently maintained this fraud over the past 50 years. A fraud perpetrated by whom, exactly?

My conversation with my adversary was cut short by a third person, thankfully, but after the third person’s departure I was asked this question, or something like it: Are you prepared to be open-minded enough to entertain the possibility that the moon landing didn’t happen, or are you completely closed-minded on the issue?

Another way of putting this would be: Why aren’t you as open-minded as I am?

So it’s this question that I need to reflect on.

I’ve been reading science magazines on an almost daily basis for the past thirty-five years. Why?

But it didn’t start with science. When I was kid, I loved to read my parents’ encyclopaedias. I would mostly read history, learning all about the English kings and queens and the battles and intrigues, etc, but basically I would stop at any article that took my fancy – Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton as well as Hitler, Ivan the Terrible and Cardinal Richelieu. Again, why? I suppose it was curiosity. I wanted to know about stuff. And I don’t think it was a desire to show off my knowledge, or not entirely. I didn’t have anyone to show off to – though I’m sure I wished that I had. In any case, this hunger to find things out, to learn about my world – it can hardly be associated with closed-mindedness.

The point is, it’s not science that’s interesting, it’s the world. And the big questions. The question – How did I come to be who and where I am?  – quickly becomes – How did life itself come to be? – and that extends out to – How did matter come to be? The big bang doesn’t seem to explain it adequately, but that doesn’t lead me to imagine that scientists are trying to trick us. I understand, from a lifetime of reading, that the big bang theory is mathematically sound and rigorous, and I also know that I’m far from alone in doubting that the big bang explains life, the universe and everything. Astrophysicists, like other scientists, are a curious and sceptical lot and no ‘ultimate explanation’ is likely to satisfy them. The excitement of science is that it always raises more questions than answers, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we have human ingenuity to thank for that, as we’re the creators of science, the most amazing tool we’ve ever developed.

But let me return to open-mindedness and closed-mindedness. During the conversation described above, it was suggested that the USA simply didn’t have the technology to land people on the moon in the sixties. So, ok, I forgot this one: two reasons put forward – 1, the USA didn’t have the technological nous; 2, the modules couldn’t take off from the moon (later acknowledged to be not so much of an issue). I pretty well knew this first reason to be false. Of course I’ve read, over the years, about the Apollo missions, the rivalry with the USSR, the hero-worship of Yuri Gagarin and so forth. I’ve also absorbed, in my reading, much about spaceflight and scientific and technological development over the years. Of course, I’ve forgotten most of it, and that’s normal, because that’s how our brains work – something I’ve also read a lot about! Even the most brilliant scientists are unlikely to be knowledgeable outside their own often narrow fields, because neurons that fire together wire together, and it’s really hands-on work that gets those neurons firing.

But here’s an interesting point. I have in front of me the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, issue 75. I haven’t read it yet, but I will do. On my shelves are the previous 74 issues, each of which I’ve read, from cover to cover. I’ve also read more than a hundred issues of the excellent British mag, New Scientist. The first science mag I ever read was the monthly Scientific American, which I consumed with great eagerness for several years in the eighties, and I still buy their special issues sometimes. Again, the details of most of this reading are long forgotten, though of course I learned a great deal about scientific methods and the scientific mind-set. The interesting point, though, is this. In none of these magazines, and in none of the books, blogs and podcasts I’ve consumed in about forty years of interest in matters scientific, have I ever read the claim, put forward seriously, that the moon landings were faked. Never. I’m not counting of course, books like Bad Astronomy and podcasts like the magnificent Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, in which such claims are comprehensively debunked.

The SGU podcast - a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

The SGU podcast – a great source for exciting science developments, criticism of science reporting, and debunking of pseudo-science

Scientists are a skeptical and largely independent lot, no doubt about it, and I’ve stated many times that scepticism and curiosity are the twin pillars of all scientific enquiry. So the idea that scientists could be persuaded, or cowed into participating in a conspiracy (at whose instigation?) to hoodwink the public about these landings is – well let’s just call it mildly implausible.

But of course, it could explain the US government’s massive deficit. That’s it! All those billions spent on hush money to astronauts, engineers, technicians (or were they all just actors?), not to mention nosey reporters, science writers and assorted geeks – thank god fatty Frump is here to make America great again and lift the lid on this sordid scenario, like the great crusader against fake news that he is.

But for now let’s leave the conspiracy aspect of this matter aside, and return to the question of whether these moon landings could ever have occurred in the late sixties and early seventies. I have to say, when it was put to me, during this conversation, that the technology of the time wasn’t up to putting people on the moon, my immediate mental response was to turn this statement into a question. Was the technology of the time up to it? And this question then turns into a research project. In other words, let’s find out, let’s do the research. Yay! That way, we’ll learn lots of interesting things about aeronautics and rocket fuel and gravitational constraints and astronaut training etc, etc – only to forget most of it after a few years. Yet, with all due respect, I’m quite sure my ‘adversary’ in this matter would never consider engaging in such a research project. She would prefer to remain ‘open-minded’. And if you believe that the whole Apollo project was faked, why not believe that all that’s been written about it before and since has been faked too? Why believe that the Russians managed to get an astronaut into orbit in the early sixties? Why believe that the whole Sputnik enterprise was anything but complete fakery? Why believe anything that any scientist ever says? Such radical ‘skepticism’ eliminates the need to do any research on anything.

But I’m not so open-minded as that, so in my dogmatic and doctrinaire fashion I will do some – very limited – research on that very exciting early period in the history of space exploration. I’ll report on it next time.

Written by stewart henderson

February 25, 2017 at 12:34 pm

our planet home – arctic sea ice is diminishing

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Records of Arctic sea ice have been regularly kept since 1980 or so, and there’s been some satellite mapping since the late seventies. The sea ice starts its growth in autumn, reaching its greatest extent at the end of the northern winter. This year has been unusual – after a more rapid freeze-up than usual in September, the growth of ice has slowed substantially, and by the end of October the sea ice extent had reached a new record low for this thirty-five year period. Two principal causes of this slow growth were the high surface temperatures in open waters of the arctic region, as well as high air temperatures. The USA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) provides lots of useful information on the issue and does its best to explain the complex local and general factors driving arctic ice formation and melting.

Arctic sea ice is ice that forms and deforms in the ocean rather than on land, so it doesn’t include icebergs or glaciers. It’s covered in snow most of the year, and its bright surface reflects 80% of sunlight back into space, whereas melted ocean water absorbs 90% of sunlight, causing a positive feedback loop, an acceleration of global warming effects. The term used to describe the whiteness or reflectivity of a surface is albedo. For our planet, albedo is affected primarily by ice and cloud cover.

While it may be that we’ll record the lowest ice maximum ‘on record’ by the end of this winter, we should recall that thirty-odd years isn’t much of a period in geological terms. Nor does melting sea ice substantially affect sea level rise, unlike melting ice sheets and glaciers. The main concern is this change in albedo, and its effect on ocean temperatures, which will not only effect ocean life in the region but also the melting of frozen coastal regions, and weather conditions, in largely unforeseeable ways.

Another issue is that ‘old sea ice’, the type that survives the annual freeze and melt cycle, has reduced substantially since records have been kept. This old ice stretched over a distance of 1.9 million square kilometres back in 1984, but this year that has reduced to about 110,000 square kilometres, according to a report from episode 592 of the SGU. This is a measure of sea ice extent, rather than volume, which would be much more difficult to measure. In any case, it’s a massive reduction in just a generation or so, but again we don’t have long-term data to tell us whether or not the planet has experienced these sorts of rapid changes before. It’s reasonable to suspect not, and that the great volumes of greenhouse gases we’ve been emitting into our atmosphere are having unprecedented effects, but we can’t be sure. In any case, our activities are certainly affecting our planet home, and theatening island and coastal populations around the globe. As mentioned, the warming of the oceans, and of the atmosphere above them, affects the polar jet stream and can have knock-on effects world-wide. The rise in sea level is generally the effect most human populations are concerned with, though the most wealthy residents of low-lying areas seem breezily unconcerned, as this podcast episode from climate one, discussing the response of residents in the San Francisco Bay area, clearly shows.

Arguably though, it’s not so much complacency as bewilderment that’s hampering responses. Projections of sea-level rise are notoriously varied, in keeping with the enormous complexity of the interacting effects of warming. We’re on much safer ground when making observations of past effects than when predicting future ones, and even then it’s tricky, because we don’t have direct measurements beyond a fairly recent time period. It’s generally agreed that the oceans have risen by about 15-20 cm in the last century, but predictions of the rise over the next thirty-odd years to mid-century vary wildly, with climate scientists bickering over the damage such varied estimates is wreaking on their profession.

So what is to be done? Allowing our bewilderment to inhibit all action is obviously counter-productive. We should continue to monitor, model and project, and to speed up the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with smart solutions to our energy needs as well as ways of minimising those needs, while considering matters of equity and opportunity re developing and developed regions. And we should continue to pressure and push our politicians towards promoting these reductions and solutions.

Written by stewart henderson

November 24, 2016 at 7:12 am